A Q&A with me at Untapped Cities – you can learn why I’m pals with the taxi driver from Slacker and other stuff here.
I met Laurie Gwen Shapiro in Northern California one fall evening. In a cozy courtyard on the University of California-Berkeley campus, I was chatting with an editor from The New Yorker when, mid-conversation, we got interrupted by a dark-haired woman.
When I learned she was writing about a teenager who stowed away on a 1928 expedition to the Antarctic, I forgave her interruption. I love a good adventure story to remote places, and the unbelievable tale of how teenager Billy Gawronski jumped into the Hudson River to sneak aboard Rear Admiral Richard Byrd’s ship triggered my imagination.
On August 24th, 1928, a 17-year-old high school kid jumped into the Hudson River and snuck inside a ship that was soon headed to Antarctica. Billy Gawronski, the son of Polish immigrants, wanted nothing more than to go to the ice continent with his hero, explorer Richard Byrd. But he was caught — and sent back home.
Teenagers dream about running away. They always have; they likely always will; often, when they do, the results are decidedly weird. (See: Haight-Ashbury circa the 1960s.)
But there’s packing a knapsack and setting out for the Summer of Love, and then there’s swimming across a major river intending to hitch a ride on a boat to Antarctica. In August of 1928, Billy Gawronski, the son of Polish Catholic immigrants, a Yiddish-speaking former “Shabbos goy” and a library-frequenting fan of adventure tales, did just that.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro talks about her new book The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. She tells the story of Billy Gawronski, a first generation New York City high schooler in 1928 desperate to escape a dreary future in the family upholstery business, who jumped into the Hudson River and stowed away on a ship bound for an expedition to Antarctica.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is a fiction writer, award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist whose writing has appeared in New York magazine, Slate, the Forward and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. In The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica (just published by Simon & Schuster), her first foray into book-length nonfiction, Shapiro recounts the true story of Billy Gawronski, a scrappy and determined teenager growing up in 1920s New York who sneaks onto a ship bound for the southernmost continent.
Hear it! Laurie Gwen Shapiro dives into the Hudson River and sneaks aboard Richard E. Byrd’s flagship with Billy Gawronski, a plucky New York City teen bent on reaching the South Pole.